Barbara-Leigh Tonelli was 19 when she walked down the aisle and said the words “I do”.
In her mind, there were no warning signs of domestic violence. However, not long after her wedding, Tonelli’s husband, a trained sniper in the military, began abusing her.
“There were frequent random beatings,” Tonelli said. “There was constant berating, constant name-calling.”
Tonelli, who is certified by the State of California in Domestic Violence Victim Services, spoke at the California State Capitol to kick off Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which is held in October.
She recalled some of the injuries her abuser inflicted upon her, including black eyes, fractured ribs, facial cuts, second and third degree burns, a scratched cornea, cracked vertebrae and the countless bruises.
Despite all the pain and abuse she endured Tonelli was paralyzed with fear and unable to cry out for help.
“He would tell me, ‘Go ahead and call the police, because it takes five or six minutes for them to respond to your 911 call, and it only takes 30 seconds for me to snap your neck,'” Tonelli said.
It wasn’t until Tonelli had three children, ages 10, four and ten months, that she decided to get help.
“Abuse and control started out moderately on my daughter,” Tonelli said of her oldest child. “I realized I wasn’t able to protect [my children] or keep [them] safe anymore.”
Tonelli, who took her wedding vows seriously, initially didn’t see divorce as an option.
“There’s a loophole,” Tonelli said. “When I said ’til death do us part’ I didn’t mean [by the hands of] my husband.”
Tonelli was referred to Women Escaping A Violent Environment in 1991 and they made arrangements for her to stay at a shelter in Auburn. Over a period of time, she collected copies of social security cards and birth certificates of her children and hid them in a shoebox.
She waited until a night when her husband and his brother had gone out to buy drugs.
“I looked at my daughter and said ‘If you’re ready, we’ll go now’ and she said, ‘If YOU’RE ready, we’ll go now’.”
Upon arriving at the shelter, Tonelli couldn’t believe the environment she had entered.
“It was an oasis,” Tonelli said. “These people were kind, they were generous, they were compassionate. It was such a different type of experience and lifestyle.”
Safehouse is the emergency shelter that provides up to a 30 day stay for female victims and their children, according to Angela Thomas, Community Relations and Events Coordinator for WEAVE.
WEAVE, a nonprofit, nationally recognized agency, primarily offers services for women because the majority of domestic violence victims are female. However, they do have resources for men.
“For male victims, we have a partnership with local hotels and we offer them vouchers,” Thomas said.
Tonelli received assistance from WEAVE in a variety of ways other than temporary housing. They helped improve her self-esteem.
Tonelli credits the former director of WEAVE, Jacqueline McClain, as the person who helped her get her life back together.
“We call her our living angel,” Tonelli said. “She made me accountable. I can’t tell you how many countless lives she’s saved.”
WEAVE also helped Tonelli obtain financial and medical aid while she worked to put the pieces of her life back together.
She worked two jobs, one at a fast-food restaurant and another as a receptionist, while she went to night school.
By 1997, Tonelli had earned two Associate’s degrees in Business and in Science. In 1998, she began attending University of California, Irvine, which was made possible by a scholarship from Soroptimist International of Huntington Beach. She graduated in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology.
Tonelli continued her education, earning a Master’s degree in Business Administration in 2002. She has completed her course work and comprehensive exam for Doctorial degree in Business, with an emphasis in Nonprofit Management.
“I’m two chapters away from the end of my dissertation,” Tonelli said.
Although she has overcome various obstacles and accomplished much for herself, Tonelli said her children are what she is most proud of in life.
“They’re healthy, they’re thriving,” Tonelli said through tears. “They’ve had their challenges. It’s not always been rosy.”
In celebration of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Sacramento County Probation Association hosted a golf tournament Friday as a WEAVE benefit. The 29th Annual Pacific McGeorge Women’s Caucus Wine-Tasting and Silent Auction took place Saturday. All proceeds from the events were donated to WEAVE.
All through the year, WEAVE works hard to serve victims of domestic violence, just like Tonelli.
“We receive over 22,000 calls per year on the crisis line,” Thomas said, referring to a 24-hour phone line available for people seeking aid or those who just want someone to listen.
While WEAVE mainly caters to Sacramento area residents, people from all over seek out help there.
“People can be calling just to get support,” said Thomas. “But if they are calling to get actual services, we might refer them to agencies within their own counties.”
Additionally, WEAVE has a Domestic Violence Response Team, which works with local authorities, such as the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and the Sacramento Police Department.
As part of their collaboration, WEAVE has advocates stationed at various precincts around the county. When a domestic violence incident occurs, the advocates go to the scene and meet with the detectives, Thomas said.
“We give them assistance in gaining temporary restraining orders,” Thomas said. “We advocate for them and attend court with them.”
In addition, the police department’s Family Abuse Unit has programs to help victims.
“Our goal is to provide an investigative service that is efficient and effective in its response,” said Sgt. Dave Cropp, of the Sacramento Police Department’s Family Abuse Unit. “We provide ongoing intervention services that are designed to help victims and children exposed to domestic violence.”
“[Counseling] services are offered that allow victims to become more autonomous without relying on the abuser for help,” Sgt. Cropp said. “Batterers are made to attend training to reduce harmful behavior.”
In 2003, Sgt. Cropp co-founded the Sacramento Domestic Violence Prevention Collaboration. DVPC went on to sponsor conferences on Children, Families and Domestic Violence in the following years.
While he acknowledges that progress is being made in alerting the community about domestic violence, Sgt. Cropp believes that the media is an obstacle which stands in the way.
“They still don’t help us spread the word about prevention programs,” he said. “They’ll fuel the fire when reporting on a domestic violence-related tragedy, but they fail to get the word out when we hold [awareness] conferences.”
Sgt. Cropp is optimistic about the goals of the department and the proactive stance they take.
“At many different levels in the community we are encouraging social dialogue about domestic violence,” Sgt. Cropp said. “Those finding themselves involved in the criminal justice system soon discover that Sacramento takes these cases seriously.”
Tonelli agreed that talking is the single most important thing to help stop domestic violence.
"Silence is deadly in this case. It’s the silence that really is killing people,” Tonelli said. “If no one’s talking about it then everyone thinks everything is going okay.”
Tonelli encouraged those being abused to speak out and get assistance.
“You’re smart, you’re brave,” she said. “You’ve stayed alive this long. You know what you’ve been through – only you know – if you’re smart enough to survive that, then you’re completely competent enough to make it on the outside.”